On these dreary February Tuesdays it seems like an idyllic dream to just pack up and escape to a vineyard somewhere warmer and less rainy when we look out our windows. For most it remains just a dream but for the brave few who make that leap it is bound to be an exciting voyage of discovery. Last week we were fortunate to welcome Clara Verheij who, together with her husband André, did just that! There they found one of Spain's most exciting wineries, Bodegas Bentomiz. This small estate are producing remarkable wines from local and international grape varieties and have won numerous awards recently, particularly for their amazing sweet wines. Clara is very much hands-on in the winery and knows the wines inside out. She gained much of her winemaking knowledge from her neighbours, some of whom now supply Bentomiz with grapes for their wines.
Clara Verheij interview with Alastair Higgins from Wines On The Green
Wines On The Green: Can you tell me a little about how you ended up in Spain with your own vineyard?
Clara Verheij: Ok, so we came to Spain 20 years ago. We are originally Dutch, it is me Clara and my husband is André. We just wanted a change in our lives and we decided it had to be Spain and we decided the south of Spain. We found an abandoned plot where André who is a building engineer constructed a house. He started a building company and built over 30 villas in the countryside as his profession and I started a language school in the next village because I am an interpreter and translator in Spanish.
The fact that all our neighbours around us made wine for their own consumption really inspired us, because in Holland there is not a lot of wine made but a lot of wine imported. So we were really into wine and in Spain we started copying really what the neighbours did and let them teach us. They taught us how to plant vines, how to harvest and to press the grapes with our feet in the very traditional way. At that moment we realised that the grapes we had there, the indigenous grapes of Moscatel de Alejandría and a variety called Romé which are completely unknown in the rest of the world. We realised that the quality of these grapes was really high thanks to the nearness of the Mediterranean that brings breezes all year round when it is hot in Summer it cools down the vineyards, also the height of the vineyards they are between 450m and 850m high. The soil is slate which brings minerality which is another asset.
Wines On The Green: Was there a lot of work to be done in terms of rejuvenating the vineyard?
Clara Verheij: Yes, a lot of work indeed. The plot that we had bought was an abandoned old vineyard. We planted new vines because the old ones had become useless and we bought some neighbouring vineyards. Everything you do there is an enormous amount of work because the soils are very hard, very tough to work, and the vines are bush vines. So, you are always working near the ground in between the rocks, hoeing is hard, taking out weeds is hard.
Wines On The Green: So it is a lot of physical work? Without machines?
Clara Verheij: No machines, you can’t do anything with machines there. Everything is hand work.
Wines On The Green: I heard you are moving towards an organic approach in the vineyard?
Clara Verheij: Yes, in our own vineyard we work completely organically. We don’t spray insecticides or herbicides. We also control lots of little viticultures or vineyards of people around us who grow the same grapes or also make wines or raisins. Which is another product of the Moscatel grape. As long as they meet our conditions we buy their grapes, and we help these people more and more to work more organically.
Wines On The Green: You mentioned you have an indigenous variety growing called Romé, how would you compare this to other varieties that people may know and recognise?
Clara Verheij: It is not a clone of another grape, so you cannot directly compare it to another grapes. You can define it as a very fruity grape it’s not very full bodied, so it is quite light. We use it in our red wines for quite a while and we decided to do something special with it and that was the rosé. Since two years ago we have made the rosé wine with this grape. It is very aromatic, very floral and a complete reflection of our terroir.
Wines On The Green: Are there any plans to grow some different varieties, or are you planning to stick with what you have?
Clara Verheij: At this moment we try to revive this Romé grape as much as possible because we are very happy with it and there are very few of them. Also in other surrounding vinyards we encourage people to grow Romé. Apart from that we also have one grape grower nearer to Malaga who has the more ‘foreign’ you could say varieties, like Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc and we also buy his grapes as he is a very good grower. But we are not going to plant them ourselves.
Wines On The Green: Every year you plan to release something new. Are there any special plans from the 2014 harvest?
Clara Verheij: Yes, we plan to do something special based on our Moscatel wine, but it is top secret!
Our thoughts on the wines are below.
This is the Bodega’s dry white wine and is made from Moscatel grapes taken from 80-90 year vines which are grown of slate soils. Fermentation is done in stainless steel and the wine is aged on its lees (dead yeast) with battonage (stirring up) every 4 weeks. It reminded us of Champagne (but without the bubbles) as it has good minerality and some very pleasant bready notes. Not at all what we were expecting from a Moscatel!
Colour: Pale lemon yellow.
Aromas: Lime, white flowers and lemon with some bready/yeasty notes and a hint of sea spray.
Flavours: Dry and light in body with refreshing acidity. Pleasant lemon and lime fruit with a floral flourish and a touch of yeast.
This is made again solely from 100% Moscatel grapes which are picked at optimum ripeness and then sun dried on traditional ‘paseros’ or sunbeds. Care is taken not to harvest the grapes too late, ensuring that there is sufficient acidity left to balance the sweetness. This wine is unfortified and fermentation is controlled by reducing the temperature and racking off the wine several times.
Colour: Pale gold.
Aromas: Raisins, honey, Demerara sugar, baked apples and honeysuckle.
Palate: Sweet with well balanced acidity and medium to full body. Good, fresh fruit flavours of peach, pear, pineapple, dried apricots and raisins. Nicely balanced and fresh. Not fully sweet.
The name of this wine literally means ‘slate terroir’. Again it is made 100% from Moscatel but is also aged for 6 months in new French oak barrels.
Colour: Pale gold.
Aromas: Apricots, baked apples, cinnamon, ginger and pineapple.
Palate: Sweet with good acidity and medium to full body. This is very well balanced and the oak does not leap out, but enhances the wine with some harmonious ginger and cinnamon spice. Fruit flavours of apricots, peach, and pineapple. Refined and polished with no harsh edges.
A very unusual sweet red made from Merlot! The grapes are harvested normally and laid out on ‘floating’ drying mats for three days. The fermentation is halted before the wine becomes too high in alcohol leaving a natural sweetness.
Colour: Ruby red with a garnet rim.
Aromas: Strawberries and blueberries with a balsamic note, redcurrant and figs.
Palate: Sweet with good acidity, full bodied with some very soft tannins. Flavours of ripe strawberries, sweet cranberries, cherries, chocolate and a hint of balsamic characters. This is almost port-like but has more freshness. Great with chocolate or fruit desserts.